This coming weekend we return to the full force of our Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra musicians (and then some) to command another performance of a Mahler symphony, which thankfully (for me, anyway) has been an annual tradition for most major orchestras since the mid-20th century. While I probably said in my last blog that Mahler's Resurrection Symphony (his 2nd) was my favorite, I will probably eat just a few morsels of those words. Each of his symphonies affects me in different ways, and the Fifth is no exception. I like the Fifth Symphony (completed in Summer 1902) because I see Mahler in a completely different mood since the completion of the First Symphony in 1888. The first four symphonies are deep, philosophical, and religiously soul-searching. The Fifth, however, contains no program, and for the first time in any of his symphonies, draws no inspiration from any previously composed songs. Mahler now concentrates on creating music purely from an orchestral template of melodies and colors. He even throws in several fugal sections throughout the entire work as a nod toward Bach.
It's safe to say that Mahler was finally in a good mood when he was writing the Fifth. Even though the first movement is labeled as a Funeral March, one must understand that the macabre was what drove his personality. He is at his best when he's contemplating death in the midst of life, and I can imagine Mahler chuckling while writing this movement. He's in his element, and I can't help but chuckle myself when I hear it. Ironically, he's in heaven when he's writing death marches. Fantastic, no? The third movement is likely my favorite of all the Mahler movements. It's fun, it's Ländler-based (insert your best von Trapp joke here), and is probably the most light-hearted of any of his other symphonic movements. It's bound together by a solo horn, performed by Principal Horn Robert Danforth, who will be playing those noble passages standing from his place in the horn section. It's also in this movement that you'll hear more of Mahler's influence of Bach counterpoint. The fugal sections are just as enjoyable to hear as they must be to play. (I'll leave it for the string players to disagree with me here...) The ubiquitous fourth movement, simply entitled "Adagietto" may likely be Mahler's most well-known movement of all the symphonies, thanks to the 1971 film Death in Venice (which was, incidentally, one of the few films that I've stopped watching out of complete boredom). My hope is that people will look beyond what they saw and heard in that film and be reminded of what happened to Mahler just before he wrote that movement in November 1901; he met the love of his life, Alma (at left). Within a month they were secretly engaged. This movement is clearly a love note, one which he gave to Alma (in score form), who fully appreciated its value and meaning. Alma, who herself was a consummate musician and composer, likely noticed Mahler's use of the loving "gaze" motif from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, one of Alma's favorite operas. This movement is one that many musicians love to hate due to its overuse on concert stages and for its sappy, pining melodic lines. But for others, it could very well represent an immeasurable and an undying passion for another human being. The last movement is the antithesis of the first movement march. Here's where you'll find Mahler at his giddiest. The fugal passages are playful and the finale will have you jump out of your seat. I love the well-known Herbert van Karajan quote regarding this symphony: "You forget that time has passed. A great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience. The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath." Remember -- Mahler was happy in 1901-1902. Feel the celebration with him as you listen to this symphony. He will rarely smile again in his forthcoming symphonies.
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